It was midnight. It was New Orleans. And nearly 4,000 dispirited Eagles fans, crowded into a corner of New Orleans International Airport, were eager to get home.
You do the math.
Somehow, though, that combustible mix never ignited. Within six hours of the Eagles’ loss in Super Bowl XV on Jan. 25, 1981, all those disappointed, weary but safe and satisfied Eagles fans were back in Philadelphia, where one of the most remarkable and remarkably brief migrations of sports fans in the city’s history had been launched the previous morning.
This week, as Minneapolis-bound area residents brace for the headaches that inevitably accompany travel to the world’s biggest single sporting event, the almost forgotten story of that legion of Philadelphians and their 21-hour charter adventure to and from Super Bowl XV ought to be both instructive and inspirational.
That so many Eagles enthusiasts in so many airplanes in so short a time completed without incident that rapid round-trip to and from America’s capital of hedonism should provide a happy counterweight to all the predictable pre-Super Bowl LII stories about the bad behavior of Philadelphia’s sports fans.
“It was chaos, but the miracle was it all worked like clockwork. Everyone got back safely,” Bob Dowd, then a United Airlines employee who accompanied the group, recalled last week. “Even though they were up early in the morning and went all day, I don’t remember anybody drinking too much or looking for a fight. The only downer was the score.”
John Mullen, the CEO of Apple Vacations, the company that arranged and executed the hastily planned, whirlwind excursion, agreed.
“God bless Eagles fans,” Mullen, now retired from the company whose Super Bowl XV experience helped it become the nation’s largest tour operator, said last week. “Not one person complained. Not one. I was absolutely amazed. Even though the Eagles lost, they were great.”
The Great Super Bowl XV Airlift was no small logistical feat. It involved 23 chartered airplanes, more than 50 Louisiana school buses, five airports, and untold amounts of food and booze.
For $299, the 4,000 travelers, all of whom had purchased $20 Super Bowl tickets through the Eagles, got their flights, their ground transportation, food, and as much booze as they could drink en route.
The highlight was the pageantry inside the Superdome and the optimistic early stages of a game in which the Eagles fell to Oakland, 27-10. The low point came near midnight, when the thousands of returning travelers spilled out of the New Orleans’ airport terminal and onto a darkened tarmac.
“We were standing on the tarmac and didn’t know what to do,” Dowd said. “We couldn’t read their tickets because it was too dark. So we just opened the door to an aircraft and started putting people on. When we counted to 150, we’d close the door and start on another plane. We did that all night. A lot of people flew down on United and went home on Eastern or Pan-Am.”
The idea for the one-day excursion was born of necessity. Thousands of Eagles fans who wanted to get to New Orleans for the game couldn’t find hotel rooms or flights.
“There were no non-stop flights,” Dowd said.
So Eagles general manager Jim Murray contacted friends at Apple Vacations, a local company founded in 1969 by Southwest Philly native Mullen.
“We were running one trip, for four days, I think, and that sold out in no time,” Mullen said. “Now they told us they had at least 3,000 to 5,000 people that needed to get there.”
Before the Eagles met Dallas in the NFC championship game on Jan. 11 at Veterans Stadium, Apple executive Ray Daley prepared postcards informing season-ticket holders that if they got Super Bowl tickets in the lottery, they could make travel arrangements with Apple.
When Philadelphia defeated Dallas, Daley made a beeline to the post office at 30th Street to mail the cards. By Jan. 14., Apple’s telephones were ringing nonstop.
“I went out to their office on Baltimore Pike [in Media] and droves of people were coming in with cash,” Dowd said.
Apple chartered one plane from United, then another. When they got to eight, United said no more were available.
“They laughed at me,” Dowd recalled. “It was unheard of that you would take that many people somewhere for a day.”
So Eastern was enlisted, then Delta, Pan-Am, TWA, and several smaller airlines. All were happy to provide planes as long as Apple provided the cash.
“We didn’t have any money,” Mullen said. “We were taking the excursion deposits and chartering the airplanes. If a lot of checks had bounced, we’d have been out of business. We just took a gamble that it would work. And it did.”
While they were busily processing requests and filling the 23 planes, an Apple employee walked into Mullen’s office and almost scuttled the plans.
“He said, `We’ve got a problem,’ ” Mullen recalled. “ `We have no way of getting people from the airport to the stadium. The transportation down there can’t handle it. Everything is booked.’ ”
That problem was solved when Daley contacted Jefferson Parish education officials, who agreed to rent the company as many school buses as it needed.
Meanwhile, company officials realized that if there were a January snowstorm in Philadelphia or fog in New Orleans – neither of which was unusual – Apple might cease to exist.
“If the flights had been canceled, they’d have lost their shirts,” Dowd said.
The first chartered jet took off from Philadelphia at 6 a.m. Sunday. The last one left three hours later. There were early reports of New Orleans fog, but the weather cleared en route. When, after the 2 ½-hour flights, the planes arrived in Louisiana, there was no place for them.
“New Orleans wasn’t a real big airport at the time,” Dowd said. “There was nowhere to park 23 planes. The tower made some go to Houston, Tampa, or Mobile for the day.”
The Philadelphians, meanwhile, deplaned and boarded the yellow buses. They were driven to Bourbon Street and advised they could kill time there before the 6 p.m. game.
“The Superdome was within walking distance and we let them know where the pick-up points would be that night,” Mullen said.
The game itself was a bust, a lopsided Raiders victory that, for the Philadelphia contingent, at least, was devoid of drama and excitement.
Once the chaotic tarmac scene was cleared and the passengers loaded, the planes began departing. All but one reached Philadelphia around 3 a.m.
“My flight was the only one that had mechanical problems,” Mullen said. “We didn’t get out of there until 5 in the morning. But no one complained.”
For the Eagles’ appearance in Super Bowl LII, there will be no similar one-day excursion to Minneapolis.
“January in Minnesota?” Mullen said. “No, that wouldn’t work.”